Yard Tour

April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go. 

~Christopher Morley

It happens every year. Things start changing so fast in the spring woods that I can’t quite keep up. There are also the chores associated with spring – fixing up stuff around the house, getting the garden prepped and planted, and so many others we all make for ourselves, too numerous to mention. But, it is what is speeding by outside my window that keeps me wanting to stop what I am doing and take note….spring is whooshing by and will soon be over and I will have missed something for gosh sakes. And that is probably the origin of the yard tour. I’m guessing it started one spring when I just felt it was all whizzing by without notice. So now, as often as possible, I take the camera or a notebook and slowly walk around the yard, observing what is occurring, taking note of what is blooming, stopping to watch something unusual and ponder. It is a good tradition, I think I’ll keep it. So, this is simply a yard tour post…things that I noticed this weekend, things whooshing by, but appreciated by a simple slow walk around the yard.

mulch and topsoil

Things that keep me busy – moving topsoil and mulch (click photos to enlarge)

vegetable garden

The vegetable garden is starting to take shape

garden pool

The garden pool with blossoms from the nearby Red Buckeye tree scattered on the surface…the Spotted Salamander eggs have recently hatched

Green Frog at pool

Green Frog claiming a spot at the pool

pinxter azalea

Pinxter Azalea in bloom – these grow scattered in the woods and along the banks of the nearby Haw River

pinxter azalea close up

Pinxter Azalea close up


Wild Blue Phlox

Phlox and foamflower

Wild Blue Phlox and Foamflower

Pawpaw flowersg

Pawpaw from earlier last week

fringe tree

Fringe Tree flowers, one of my favorite native trees

false solomons seal

False Solomon’s Seal is abundant inside the deer fence, absent outside of it

solomon's seal

The same goes for Solomon’s Seal

Viburnum rafinesquianum downy arrowwood

Downy Arrowwood is blooming

shade garden

One of the shade gardens with Wild Columbine, Mayapple, Giant Chickweed, and Foamflower, Toadshade Trillium, and Jacob’s Ladder


Deerberry, a wild blueberry

dwarf crested iris blue form

Dwarf Crested Iris, blue form

dwarf crested iris white form 2

Dwarf Crested Iris, white form

coral honeysuckle

Coral Honeysuckle, a hummingbird favorite

wild columbine 2

Wild Columbine, another great hummingbird plant

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

Opening Acts – Flowers

Every spring is the only spring – a perpetual astonishment.

~Ellis Peters

The astonishment starts slowly, almost imperceptibly. The temperatures in this part of the world tease, and then take away the warmth, only to bring it back in a day or two. But the woods are more predictable than the thermometer. One of the first hints is that reddish tinge in the trees you see, usually while driving somewhere. The Red Maple flowers are amongst our earliest, and they signal the true change in season. The tiny red flowers lay scattered here in the yard now, mostly done for this year. But they awaken the spring consciousness in me, and I start to notice the other changes happening all around.

Looking up through a blooming Spicebush

Spicebush flowers appear before the leaves (click photos to enlarge)

The tiny yellow puffs of flowers of the Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, appeared more than a week ago, a couple of weeks before the first leaves of this naive shrub. Spicebush can be found throughout our region, especially in the fertile soils along rivers and streams.

Spicebush flowers up close

Spicebush flowers up close

Male and female flowers occur on separate shrubs, with only the female plants producing the bright red berries in Fall. Birds relish the fruit, and, dried and pulverized, the drupes were once commonly used as a substitute for allspice. The twig bark and leaves can be brewed into a tasty tea that purportedly has medicinal properties.

Spicebush swallowtail on leaf pad

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on its namesake plant

But I love this plant for another reason – one of its associates. The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on this shrub and on the leaves of Sassafras. This beguiling bug is one of my favorite caterpillars, complete with large fake eye spots, and a habit of folding the leaves to make a shelter, making it one of the easier caterpillars to find each Fall to delight visitors at the museum’s annual BugFest event. On our stroll last weekend, I was surprised to see very few of these supposedly deer resistant shrubs down in the creek bottom. It looks like they have been heavily browsed.

Hepatica flower 1

There were a few Hepatica flowers in bloom last week

But, to my delight, we did find a few Hepatica (Hepatica obtusa var. nobilis or Hepatica americana) flowers in bloom.

Hepatica flower

Hepatica flower

These tiny bluish-purple flowers are amongst the earliest of the spring ephemerals, barely poking their blossoms above the leaf litter. We probably found a half dozen flowers in our walk last weekend, so at least a few have survived the deer.

bloodroot leaf before unfurling

Bloodroot leaf is tightly furled before opening

A neighbor posted something on our list serve about Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) being in bloom this week. We did not see any leaves or flowers on our walk last weekend, but I did find a couple inside the deer fence yesterday. The single basal leaf pokes out of the ground tightly furled like a tiny textured flag wrapped around a pole.

Bloodroot bud

Bloodroot flower bud

Each single flower stalk emerges wrapped in a single leaf.  When the flower blooms, the leaf unfurls. The short-lived flowers remained tightly closed yesterday, perhaps awaiting a sunny day before opening up to potential pollinators.

Trout Lily clump

Trout Lily clump in the yard

One of my favorite spring ephemerals is the Trout Lily (also called Dimpled Trout Lily), Erythronium umbilicatum. Blooming in early to mid-March, it can form dense colonies in areas like Eno River State Park and Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. There are a few plants that were transplanted into this yard during a plant rescue organized by the NC Botanical Garden. These volunteer efforts help rescue plants from a development prior to the bulldozers commencing their work. This is a great way to get plants for your yard and to save a bit of our native flora. Be sure to get permission from the landowners before doing any plant rescues.

Looking down on Trout Lily flower

Looking down on Trout Lily flower

The common name, Trout Lily, comes from the dappled leaves which are said to resemble the skin pattern of a Brook or a Brown Trout. Plants that will not flower have a single leaf, those producing flowers will have two leaves. I enjoy looking down on the flowers to appreciate their pattern.

Trout Lilies in bloom

Trout Lily flowers are closed early in the morning

Besides, you really have to almost lay on the ground to get a good photo of a flower due to their drooping habit. As with many spring flowers, Trout Lilies close each evening and may remain closed on rainy or cloudy days. This probably serves to protect their pollen and have it ready on warm, sunny days, when pollinators are apt to be more active.

Trout Lily flower open

Trout Lily flower

When fully open, the petals and sepals reflex upward, revealing the flower parts hanging beneath.

Trout Lily flower in rain

Trout Lily flowers remained closed in the rain yesterday

Yesterday, the flowers in the yard remained closed. The cool rainy weather may have slowed spring for a bit, but the next few days promise more astonishment. There is a noticeable reddish-pink cast to the twigs of the Redbud trees surrounding the house. Once they bloom, and that curtain is raised, the stage is set for the grand show to begin in earnest. If you get too busy for a day or two, you may miss some of it. Be sure to take some time to look around you these next few weeks, to observe and listen, and enjoy the arrival of the new season. It is truly a magical time to be a woods-watcher.

Spring Forward

The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size.

~Gertrude S. Wister

The change in our clocks this past weekend is one of the ways most of us know that spring is on the way in spite of the cold the past few weeks. Another are the first truly warm days like we are now having. But, for me, I know it is spring when I discover the first wildflowers of the season in our woods. One of the earliest is one of my favorites, the diminutive Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica.

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty (click photos to enlarge)

I saw this one yesterday afternoon, just barely poking its flower head above the leaf litter as I was walking through the yard. I immediately stopped and thought, it really is Spring! I got down on my hands and knees to take a closer look at the delicate beauty of the plants’ five petals. The petals can be quite variable, ranging in color from white to pink, but almost all have pinkish lines which appear to converge on the center of the flower. My flower has very faint lines, the so-called “bee guides”, which pollinators can see better than us. Research has shown that these lines on flower petals are used to guide the pollinators to the nectar when they visit a flower. A small ground-nesting bee collects the pollen from this plant and feeds it to its larvae. The aptly-named Spring Beauty Bee, and a few other species of small insects (especially a species of Bee Fly around here) are the primary pollinators.

Spring Beauty close up

And the pollen is quite noticeable on this species of flower – it is pink. You can see the pink pollen in the pollen baskets on the legs of the Spring Beauty Bee as it goes from plant to plant on warm, sunny days. The flowers tend to open mid-morning and close by late afternoon, and may remain closed all day on cloudy or rainy days. This helps preserve the pollen to increase the chances that a bee will visit on a sunny day and cross pollinate the plant.

Spring Beauty 2

Spring Beauty is one of the earliest of our spring wildflowers

In addition to the beauty and complexity of the flowers of Spring Beauty, it also has an edible small tuber which is quite tasty to us, and a variety of wildlife. It is a great small plant for your home garden as it is deer-resistant. It can add a splash of color to your woodland garden for a few weeks each spring, before the whole plant goes dormant. It then remains most of the year as only an underground tuber until you need another pick-me-up glimpse of a delicate spring flower after next year’s long winter. This tiny, often overlooked flower, is a perfect example of why we all need to become more aware of our native species and why we should try to plant local natives whenever possible. In today’s New York Times, there is a great op-ed by native plant guru, Doug Tallamy, on why natives are important, Take a look, it is a good read. Then get outside and learn more about native plants in your area, and consider planting some for yourself, and for your local wildlife.






Not Just a Garden for Elk

Each May for the past several years, I have made a pilgrimage to my parent’s home in Damascus, Virginia. It is my Dad’s birthday and, of course, Mother’s Day, so a perfect time to visit. It is also a perfect time to visit for the spectacle of spring in the mountains. We almost always manage a day trip up to Elk Garden, part of the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. Named for the elk that once roamed these mountains, Elk Garden lies between the two tallest mountains peaks in Virgina – Whitetop and Mount Rogers. The elevation at the roadside parking lot at this saddle between the peaks is about 4500 feet. And this year, I made it to the Mt. Rogers Naturalist Rally, an annual gathering of over 100 people that come to learn about the flora, fauna, geology, and history of this unique area. I joined the morning salamander walk and learned a lot about that often difficult to identify group of mountain salamanders (we found eleven species and well over a hundred individual specimens). Unfortunately, it was raining (although the area needs the rain), so I was not able to do much photography until after that hike.

forest scene

Rich herbaceous layer in the forest at Elk Garden (click photos to enlarge)

This is probably the richest display of wildflowers I have ever seen, so it is a delight to visit each spring and see what is at peak bloom. This year was simply spectacular in spite of the dreary weather.

fringed phacelia

Fringed Phacelia

The forest floor at Elk Garden is carpeted with the deeply fringed petals of this beautiful wildflower. As the petals begin to age, they become tinged with purple. This is an unusual species in that it is one of the few winter annuals to be found amongst the many perennials in these rich woodlands.

trout lily buds

Flower buds of Trout Lily

trout lily grouping

Cluster of Trout Lilies

There are also huge populations of Trout Lily on these slopes. And this year, there were all stages of these flowers, from unopened buds, to waning yellow blossoms.

Wake Robin red grouping

The slopes were also covered with Trillium

Splashes of maroon and pale yellow were found everywhere you looked. These stately flowers are a type of trillium, specifically a species known as Wake Robin. This common name supposedly refers to the time of year when it blooms – spring can officially begin when this species flowers, as its appearance is supposed to wake up the robins.

Wake Robin red 1

The dominant color of this species at Elk Garden is maroon.

Wake Robin yellow 1

There is also a cream-colored or pale yellow variant.

This species can be highly variable in color with maroon and white being fairly common elsewhere in its range. But here, I saw no white flowers, just lots of maroon and some pale yellow and cream-colored ones.

Wake Robin yellow back view

Don’t forget to take in the back side of this flower

I saw several people attempting to get “the shot” of these often slightly nodding flowers, which usually requires some contortions. But, the reverse side is worthy of a look as well (and not nearly as tough to get).

Wood Anenome

Wood Anemone

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty

Scattered in patches across the several slopes I visited were patches of two small flowers that are true harbingers of spring – Spring Beauty and Wood Anemone. Spring Beauties can be almost all white or have some intense pinkish purple lines on the petals. Wood Anemone looks like a delicate 5-petaled flower, but, it actually lacks petals altogether. The five white floral parts are the sepals.

yellow Mandarin 1

Yellow Mandarin

blue cohosh

Blue Cohosh

Two less common species offer a more subdued floral display. Yellow Mandarin tends to hide its flowers under its leaves. Blue Cohosh has beautiful, blueish-green foliage, and flower clusters that require close inspection to appreciate.

rose twisted stalk plant

Rose Twisted Stalk

rose twisted stalk flowers AV

The delicate blossoms of Rose Twisted Stalk

Rose Twisted Stalk is shy wildflower in spite of its heavy metal band sounding name. It occurs in a few patches along the main trail up the slope from the parking lot. The small rose-colored flowers hide beneath the lance-shaped leaves. And the plant does have a stalk that is branched and twisted, giving it a distinctive zigzag appearance.

Squirrel Corn 1

The unusual shaped flowers of Squirrel Corn

I always look for the unusual flowers of Squirrel Corn along the trail. Many of the flowers were in poor condition, either because they were past their prime, or because of what looks like a dry spring in this area.

Squirrel Corn leaves

Squirrel Corn leaves

Squirrel Corn leaves black and white

Squirrel Corn leaves in black and white

The lacy leaves of Squirrel Corn are almost as attractive as the unusual flowers, especially when covered with rain drops. I always like black and white versions of these images that have so much pattern to them.

Tree on boulder

Tree growing on large boulder

This unique area has always drawn me to it and I have visited often over the years. The wildflowers are definitely worth a spring trek, so I will be back again next year to celebrate the beauty of the wild garden of the elk.

Crested Dwarf Iris

Crested dwarf iris patch

Crested Dwarf Iris

I have always had a fondness for the wildflowers of spring woodlands and have planted them in shady spots as a harbinger of my favorite season. One of the hardiest of the spring ephemerals is Crested Dwarf Iris, Iris cristata.  I have purchased many of these (and other native wildflowers) over the years from the NC Botanical Garden (http://ncbg.unc.edu/) in Chapel Hill. They run an honor system plant sale from April through October and usually have a large sale event in September. I have also transplanted some from areas that were being developed by digging a few of the stubby rhizomes and planting them in shallow soil. It seems these tiny plants do best on rich wooded slopes, ravines, stream banks and other places where their rhizomes remain partially exposed and the beautiful sword-shaped leaves are not covered by deep leaf litter.  If you have typical garden varieties of iris you may do a double take when you first see this one – a tiny plant reaching only 3-5 inches in height. The flowers are usually some shade of blue or violet (occasionally white) and they tend to grow in patches, offering a visual delight to the spring woods walker.

Crested dwarf iris flower

Crested Dwarf Iris flower (click to enlarge)

They are named for the yellow crinkled crest on the sepals, which serves to guide pollinators (mainly bees) to the nectar deep within the throat of the flower (although I have also read it may give the bee something to grasp onto while navigating toward the nectar). If you look closely at an iris, you will notice it has an unusual flower structure. The three largest petal-like structures are actually sepals (which enclose and protect the flower bud before it opens). In iris flowers, they are also called the falls. The wide tip of the fall provides a place for pollinators to land.

Crested dwarf iris style arm

Crested Dwarf Iris style arm (click to enlarge)

Arching over each fall is a modified reproductive part called the style arm. This is probably the most unusual part of an iris flower. I had read about this but decided to take a closer look which required lying down and propping the flower parts open with a tiny twig to better view and photograph them (the things you have to do for science).

Dwarf Crested Iris flower parts

Dwarf Crested Iris flower parts

Just under the tip of the style arm is the stigma lip. This is the area that receives the pollen. It is a light-colored exposed curved edge just under the arch. A visiting bee must push under this style arm in order to access the nectar that is deep inside the throat of the flower. While crawling down toward the nectar glands, pollen is scraped off the back of the bee by this edge and attaches to the sticky stigmatic lip. The anthers (male, pollen-producing parts) are elongate structures behind the stigma lip. After the bee gets scraped of pollen, it then brushes up against the anther and gets fresh pollen. That pollen is unlikely to be transferred to this particular stigma lip as the bee backs out (they often exit through the gap in the arch). Bees are the primary pollinators as few other insects have the strength to push under the style arm.

Crested dwarf iris rhizomes

Crested Dwarf Iris rhizomes (click to enlarge)

The rest of the plant parts are a bit more the usual…the true petals (often called standards in iris) are the smaller of the colorful parts, and most often stand in a more upright position than the falls. Like in most flowers, they serve to attract pollinators. The rhizomes are short and chunky and connected to one another by slender runners. The sword-like leaves are attractive even when no flowers are present.

crested dwarf iris bud

Crested Dwarf Iris flower bud

One thing I noticed yesterday is how quickly the flower opens. Here is a picture of the flower bud on one iris at 10:37 a.m. yesterday. When I returned from some errands at 3:00 p.m., the flower was fully opened.

The modern name for the iris flower is believed to have originated in ancient Greece. There, the flower was associated with the goddess Iris, a divine messenger who traveled from heaven to earth on rainbows. Throughout history, iris have represented wisdom, faith, and courage and been used as a royal symbol of king and queens. While that glory most probably went to their larger cousins, the diminutive Crested Dwarf Iris also deserves recognition and appreciation as we wander the spring woods.